Saturday, March 14, 2009

On Learning

In the last few months, I have been on a committee in the college to look at how we should alter our college-level curriculum to enhance learning and education. This has been a really interesting experience for me, since it has demonstrated that some of my ideas for how things should be taught may be correct. We have had general discussions, have had some interviews with alumni, and have talked to companies that hire our alumni.

There really appears to be a common theme among the feedback - we should do more practical projects. The general idea is that students learn by doing. In an engineering class, you can sit there and be taught about resistors and capacitors all day, but you won't really know how to use them until someone sticks you in a lab and you have to build something. Taking it a step further, you won't understand what they are for until you have to build something that is not specified in a cookie-cutter lab project.

We have really talked about this as a general concept in all aspects of education. What this really means is that we have to start using open-ended questions to figure things out. Questions that may not have a clearly defined right or wrong. You have to make your own assumptions, justify those assumptions, then answer the question. This is not how things are done in school. Students don't like this because it is hard and it is very difficult to quantify what you have to do to get an "A" in the class. Memorizing facts and formulas is much easier. It is just too bad that this is not what life is really like. It is also much more difficult for professors also. You can't ask simple multiple choice questions, since they don't probe the issues at all. You have to ask more open-ended questions, then actually read all of the answers. That is painful in large classes. It is also almost impossible to do with graduate instructors grading things also, since there may not be any clearly defined answer. So, how do tell the GI to grade it? "You will know the correct answer(s) when you see it/them." That works for some GIs, but not all.

There are further problems with this idea. The biggest of which is that most professors feel that you have to pack the student's heads with FACTS. If you don't teach them all of the FACTS then you have not done your job! So, classes are jammed with lesson after lesson on the facts of some issue or another issue, instead of how to use those facts for something practical.

The most extreme case of the 'anti-fact' 'pro-doing' teaching that I have seen is that a professor was advocating doing away with calculus, and teaching students how to do integrals and derivatives on the computer. Since, few students actually use integral tables anymore, they simply use Maple or Mathematica to solve complicated equations. This is sort of a natural extension to log/sin/cos tables. When I was in high-school, we learned how to look up the solution to log(x) on a table, instead of on a calculator, even though calculators were available most places. Now, I can imagine that this is not taught, since you can buy a calculator at Target for a nickel. How many students today have a big book of integral tables? Why bother when you can use a computer? Would it be better teaching student why you might want to actually use calculus? Give the students problems that they may actually be exposed to in everyday life (well, maybe life on their job...) This maybe sort of an extreme example.

In my department, we produce a lot of students who are supposed to do something very, very, very practical. But, we don't have a single professor in the department that does that practical thing. And the faculty have no motivation what-so-ever to hire a tenured faculty member to do that. So, we pay a research faculty member who specializes in that practical thing to teach the two actual practical classes that we offer. The students love those classes and would like more. But we don't offer them more. Instead, we offer classes on more facts about the processes. This, to me, is a completely screwed up system.

I am a relatively young faculty member who has been teaching for only a few years. Maybe I am naive. I can believe that. But, I think that, while I am young enough to listen to what students and outside members of the general community want, I will try to slowly change our department to teaching more "hands-on" classes. Maybe our students will succeed more and we will grow. Who knows?